Uninvited guests

Panama’s migrant surge will test regional cooperation.

A huge influx of migrants at Panama’s southern border is posing a serious headache for the Central American nation. Customs personnel are stretched alongside dwindling budgetary allocations. Geopolitical factors are at play beyond its borders too. The country will need to navigate and adapt to delicate hemispheric realities to preserve its own territorial integrity.  

To put the numbers in perspective, an official at Panama’s National Migration Service confirmed, “Some 133,000 people entered the country in 2021. This is obviously a huge increase from the 8,000 we saw in 2020 and the 22,000 we recorded in 2019.”   

“Some 133,000 people entered the country in 2021. This is obviously a huge increase from the 8,000 we saw in 2020.”

Official, Panama’s National Migration Service

Geography significantly plays to these migratory flows. Panama’s prime location, a sun-soaked isthmus connecting the North and South American continents is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it has enabled the country to flourish as a trade and logistics hub – on the other, it has become a major transit point for illegal migration – thousands traverse its inhospitable jungle terrain as they move north toward dreams of a new life in America.  

The (almost) impenetrable Darién Gap – Panama’s governance blind spot on the border with Colombia – just happens to be the only route for migrants moving northwards from South America. The Darién has become a breeding ground for people smugglers and criminal networks.  

According to an agreement between the Panama and Colombia governments, no more than 650 migrants are permitted to cross the Darién per day. In reality the figures are far higher and there is little that authorities can do to stop them.  

To the north, Washington is frustrated by what it perceives as broad indifference by regional administrations. It has invested much diplomatic and financial capital, including a biometric tracking system, in Panama to try to stem the flow. Panama for its part has tended to characterise the challenge as one not of its own making but of tightening immigration laws and tough labour market conditions in countries to the north and south.    

Regional cooperation will be critical. A professor at one of Panama’s largest universities said, “Panama signed an agreement with Costa Rica to manage the flow of migrants through Central America in order to ease domestic pressures – this has thus far been implemented successfully. On the part of Colombia however, the departure of migrants from Colombian soil has not been effectively controlled. Countries in the region need to be supported by multilateral institutions and they need to see evidence that policies can and do work.”  

“Countries in the region need to be supported by multilateral institutions and they need to see evidence that policies can and do work.”

Professor, University of Panama, Panama

On this front, there is positive evidence that multilateral engagement has borne fruit. Panama, with the support of the International Organization for Migration opened three immigration reception centres in Darién and in Gualaca, Chiriquí, on the border with Costa Rica. 

Nonetheless, numbers look set to grow in 2022 as Covid exacerbates already stressed economic conditions. The migration official said, “Migrants are looking for some safer routes through the sea to avoid the potential for abuse and exploitation. However alternative routes are better patrolled by the authorities meaning the Darién is likely to remain the most attractive option.” 

Panama can do little to influence the factors that cause migrants to depart one country for another. At the international level, it is only responsible for establishing and enforcing cooperation agreements to address the problem – it can do little to affect the socio-economic sources of the problem. This small nation may have to sit tight and hope that the conditions that make migrants move improve. 


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